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Pixar's 'Cars 3' can't outrun its sequel feel

POSTED: June 16, 2017 9:51 a.m.
Josh Terry/

Lightning McQueen in "Cars 3."

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“CARS 3” — 2½ stars — Voices of Owen Wilson, Cristela Alonzo, Chris Cooper, Nathan Fillion, Larry the Cable Guy; in general release

“Cars 3” feels a little like one of the Rocky sequels, and that is meant as both a compliment and a criticism.

It has been 11 years since “Cars” first welcomed audiences into a world of talking automobiles. “Cars 3” begins as the franchise protagonist, Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson), is at the tail end of his long and illustrious racing career. But just as No. 95 is about to finish another race, the future arrives in the sleek, black form of Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), a modern racer who steals a decisive victory.

Before McQueen can register what is happening, all his longtime competition starts getting replaced by new and improved models, and when he doggedly keeps trying to compete with Storm, he gets in a traumatic wreck that threatens to end his career.

A few months later, McQueen is trying to work his way back into the racing circuit, but he finds that his old sponsor has sold out to Sterling (Nathan Fillion), a smooth-talking entrepreneur who intends to lead McQueen into the future of racing. In Sterling’s view, that future has McQueen acting as more of a brand spokesman than an actual racer, but the aging hero convinces him that if he can win his next race — the Florida 500 — he should be allowed to keep competing.

So McQueen sets out to get into racing shape, accompanied by a perky young trainer named Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), who had aspirations to race before settling into the personal fitness field. Their journey takes them off the main highways into the history of racing, through a manic demolition derby called the Crazy 8, and finally to a remote raceway where an old moonshine car named Smokey (Chris Cooper) trained McQueen’s mentor Doc (Paul Newman).

The back-to-your-roots squaring off against modern technology theme carries a distinct “Rocky IV” vibe, and older audiences will picture Sylvester Stallone carrying logs up Siberian mountains while Dolph Lundgren runs on treadmills while hooked up to a dazzling array of computers and monitors. “Cars 3” isn’t going to get credit for thawing any current U.S.-Russian tensions, but it does have a nice mentoring theme that leads to a fairly surprising third-act twist.

Altogether, “Cars 3” is a perfectly serviceable piece of animation that will get the kids around the track a time or two. But, for a company that has marked itself as an innovator and master storyteller, the clear sequel vibe of director Brian Fee’s effort places it as a distant second to the studio’s flagship films. In a lot of ways, a family trip to see “Cars 3” will come down to how many movies you plan to take the kids to in a year.

As you’d expect, the animation quality is solid (a 3-D version is available but unspectacular), and there are some familiar faces in the cast, even if no one really stands out performance-wise. The story feels a little slow at times, and the humor is more likely to prompt light chuckles than laughing children, which, in this case, isn’t a good thing.

You probably won’t regret taking the kids to “Cars 3,” but they won’t be missing much if you decide to skip it, either.

“Cars 3” is preceded by “Lost and Found,” an excellent animated short about a playground bully getting his comeuppance in an unorthodox way.

“Cars 3” is rated G; running time: 109 minutes.
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